Your Questions Answered: Life In Berlin

 I field loads of questions and queries from newcomers to Berlin, as well people who are thinking about moving here.  They are all good questions but, unfortunately, I rarely have the time to answer them.  So I've created this one-stop FAQ page for my readers to refer to. Almost all of the information below comes from personal experience, or anecdotal tales from friends. It may be a bit subjective, but it should give you a better idea about life here in Berlin.

Berlin is a very, very safe city so this is one book you can't judge by its cover.  It's cover says, 'True Crime Story' but the inner text is something more along the lines of La Boheme meets Altered State.  If you've lived in London or New York and have gotten used to looking over your shoulder, then you'll lose that habit blissfully fast in Berlin.  Street fights and bar brawls are rare; when they do happen, everybody stares or, in some cases, even starts to shout at the perpetrators.  Breaching the peace here is seen as the ultimate act of social impertinence. If you ever see someone making a scene in Berlin, check out the reactions of bystanders - for those trying to get their heads around Berlin culture, this can often be more telling than whatever it they are reacting to.

This love of order makes the city something of a paradise for women.  Wolf-whistling and street harassment are virtually nonexistent and women needn't hesitate before heading out to graffiti-covered clubs in the city's glass strewn alleys, or to remote open-air parties, although it is always a good idea to exercise basic safety precautions.

Trains, Trams and U-Bahn.
No, the lack of ticket barriers does not mean that public transport is free! Okay, so this is probably obvious.  I guess what I am saying is that the lack of ticket barriers is not a sign that the transport operators don't give a s*** if you pay or not.  They do, and if they catch you (all the ticket inspectors are plain clothes and they generally check you on the train) then you will be expected to do one of two things:

1) Pay the 40 Euro fine on the spot or go to a bank machine with them and withdraw the 40 Euros
2) Show proof of residence and a photo  I.D. so that they can send you a 40 Euro ticket in the post.

I have only ever read about one case in which an English tourist was caught without a ticket also didn't have any money or ID with her, and she spent the night in jail.  Hers was probably a rare case, and the guy who put her there was probably being a b*st*rd, but it goes to show you that they do take these things seriously and can make life difficult for fare dodgers.

In my view, the fact that the transport system here operates on an honour code is a reflection of that same self-discipline that makes the city such a safe place to live.  Anyone who is planning on staying long term should probably try and follow the 'while in Rome' mentality and go along with that.  Many English newcomers gripe about the nanny state back home that doesn't trust them to do anything without supervision.  Berlin does trust you, so please show it that you deserve that trust!

Now that you have your ticket the next question is, what the f*** do you do with it?  Good question!  Some tickets have to be validated and others don't, and it's not always clear which is which.   This is one reason why lots of tourists with unvalidated tickets are let off the hook without a fine... but just as many aren't (see above) so it's better to learn the system early on.

Trains, tubes and (I think) trams: Almost all tickets need to be validated before boarding on trains and tubes.  Validate tickets after boarding on trams. This applies even if they are daily or weekly passes.  The only exception to the rule that I know of is full-price (77,00 Euro) monthly passes, because they always have a date printed at the top.  But if in doubt, always validate the ticket once (not twice or three times).

Buses: No need to validate tickets bought on board, they should be pre-validated.  All others need to be validated before boarding.

Money-saving tip: If you get a full price monthly ticket you can take one person with you for free after 8 p.m. and all weekend long.  Or if you're a late riser you can save about 20 Euros per month by buying at 10 a.m. pass, which is valid from 10 - 4 a.m. each day.

Finding a flat.
Unless you sublet, you cannot get a flat in Berlin without about 4 or 5 different official documents, all in German, to prove that you are a well behaved, upstanding tenant who never starts fights in the streets, bunks the train, or gets into debt. They're all confusingly opaque and basically unnecessary in every other part of Germany. The most important document, if I had to pick one, is the one which proves that you have a clear credit history in Germany, and you can only get after living at a registered address in Germany for 6 months. So, count on not having a place in your own name for at least that long.

Address Registration.
To be able to do anything officially in Germany, you need a registration (Anmeldung) form from the Burgeramt (district office). All you need for this registration is photo I.D. and a tenancy agreement with your signature on it. They can give you one even if your German is sh*t, all you need to do is pronounce Anmeldung (Ahn-mehl-doong) properly and you'll be fine! The only difficult part is getting a tenancy agreement, figuring out when the Burgeramt is open and then waiting for an entire day or so, to be seen. Bring a novel or two with you.

What will you need your address registration form for: 
Library card, gym, school, language courses, bank account, business registration, taxes, work, and getting a flat or house of your own in the future. Basically, it's fundamental but, once again, the six month rule applies: if you're staying in Germany longer than six months then get registered at your address, even if you're not staying there the whole time. And while you're at it, get a form that gives you permission to stay in Germany. It's apparently a legal necessity although few people apart from me seem to have one. Still, it can't be a bad idea in case they like, decide to close the borders or something.

"Everybody in Berlin speaks some English... some of them speak it better than the English do!" "Nearly everybody knows a little bit of English, so you'll be fine speaking it nearly everywhere." These are myths.
The myth of Berlin's English literacy has only become so widespread, though, because there is a grain of truth in it. While there is no accounting for experience, the reality is that you'll mostly find people who understand enough English to hold a decent conversation with you in the gentrified boroughs of Mitte, Tiergarten, Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, and Friedrichshain. Living in these English enclaves comes with a price, though; flats are expensive in all above areas, and unless you are running some sort of established business with lots of foreign customers, you're probably not going to be able to afford living in them. If you're earning real Berlin wages, in a Berlin based business, you will probably end up somewhere like Neukoelln, Lichtenberg, Schoeneweide or Wedding, and then you'll find it's necessary to learn German in a hurry. Without basic German skills in the non-gentrified parts of Berlin, you may find that registering your address, paying bills, going to the shops or even enrolling in German language classes is a bit of a hassle. Yep, that's right: even the German language schools that I visited here expected me to speak in German whilst enrolling. Guess that's their version of immersion learning!).

A good guideline to follow when deciding whether to take German lessons is this: if you will be in Berlin longer than 6 months then you should enroll in an intensive German-speaking course and get up to at least A2 level (that's easily done in 3 months). People I know who have stayed for less time than that, have generally found that it was not possible to learn enough German "on the side" to make it worthwhile. But all the same, they needed to use a tourist phrasebook to get by, so make you have one before arriving.

Best / Most Central Area to Live.
Berlin is huge. The city proper covers an area of 800-some square kilometers and is divided up into dozens of gigantic boroughs. Many of Berlin's boroughs have vague "centers" made up of cafes, restaurants, bars, clubs, cinemas and galleries that fill up with people every weekend. Taking a flat in the wrong area of Berlin can mean that end up commuting for 30 minutes by train or tram every time that you want to see your friends or have a night out. Again, that may sound like a short jaunt to a non-Berliner but once you adjust to the local rhythms, you will feel like you are wasting your time. That is another reason why renting a flat before you get to know the city is inadvisable. If you really want to spend that 'little bit extra' on finding a good home, you are better off booking yourself into a comfy hostel or cheap hotel for one month, and taking some time to explore the city. That way, you can get to know each neighbourhood's character before you settle on one.

Berlin has no center. You have probably heard this before. You might be thinking, "How is that possible? There must at least be some sort of vague, centralized grouping of nightlife and/or shopping that resembles the town centers that I know."  No, there isn't. Yes, it is as confusing as it sounds!  Adapting to the city's size is as inevitable and unavoidable as learning how to say, "sprechen Sie Englisch?" (Do you speak English?) and it will take many weeks for you to get your bearings. Personally, I find that Berlin's lack of a cogent center is one of its attractions. It is one of the things that makes this city such head-spinning, trippy place to be. That such far-flung people can still manage to connect into a strong, independent community really defies all logic. It even seems a bit mystical at times. You'll grow to love it in the end, though... I promise!
If, however, you are the type of person who likes a city's nightlife to be neatly tied up with a little bow on it and lit by flashing neon lights, then Berlin is probably the wrong city for you.

Meeting People.
When one is in a nightlife spot (a club at 4 a.m.; a bar at 3 a.m.; the local park after 8 p.m.) then meeting people is pretty straightforward. You say hi. You strike up casual chit-chat with your neighbour. You share a drink or two. In other settings, you may find that casual conversation isn't as easy to stumble upon as you are used to. Speaking generally (and there are always exceptions, especially in Berlin) friendship in Germany is not something that 'just happens'. It is something that people endeavour to build and, to do that, they need a blueprint. So to get on the level with the local people, it is wise to clarify what you are looking for in a friend or partner. What tastes should they have? Where should they like to go? What should their other traits be? Keep an eye out for places that people like you like to go to, and make sure that you go to parties there as often as you can.

People who have lived in Berlin for a while tend to know what they are looking for in a friend or a partner and can be quite upfront about 'screening' people before agreeing to take things further. It's something we all do at some point in our relationships anyway, but it can take a bit of adjustment for us Englischers to learn how to do that right from the start. If you meet with direct questioning then don't be put off: just be honest and make sure to have some questions of your own at hand. Whatever you say, just remember that German culture is as polite as your culture back home. People here try to keep conversations fairly above-board until they know the person they're talking to better, and you should do the same if you want to avoid scaring new friends away.

Stare Tactics. If you are from a city where people avoid eye contact with strangers at all costs (London, Paris and New York, for example) then you may be put out by the amount of staring that you encounter from strangers, here in Berlin. You may be tempted to assume that you have something stuck to your face, or that you are being challenged or singled out in some way. Don't panic - the chances are that you don't, and you aren't. I haven't yet figured out why Berliners are less shy about eye-contact than other big city people. As near as I can tell, it's just their way of saying 'hi'. That doesn't mean that you should actually say 'hi' back to them... but by all means, feel free to stare back. If that idea makes you feel uncomfortable then you can always practice on your cat first, in the safety of your home!

My blog Club Alien can give you more suggestions about nightlife in Berlin.

A few more facts about Berlin. It was built on a swamp
Before becoming Germany's capital, Berlin was the capital of the kingdom of Prussia
Berlin has an official population of 3 million
The first recorded instance of people eating gherkins was right here, in Berlin.

It is usual to tip 10 percent for table service in Berlin's bars, cafes and restaurants
Berlin is located near the centre of the former German Democratic Republic
This is for those of you who weren't around during the Cold War era: the Berlin Wall did not divide the city in half.  Instead, it encircled a small parcel of land in the city center that belonged to West Germany.  That area came to be known as 'West' Berlin more because of its political associations than because of its location. 
One million visitors come to Berlin each month.
The city's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, is gay.  The city also boasts Germany's largest gay population
Smoking is allowed in most bars and clubs.  Berlin is the only city that is officially exempt from Germany's smoking ban!
There is no fixed closing time for bars and clubs in Berlin
Some famous people and bands who have lived here are: Marlene Dietrich (of course), Vladimir Nabokov; Edward Munch; Wilhelm Grimm; Jacob Grimm; Karl Marx; Berthold Brecht; George Wilhelm Hegel; Albert Einstein; Fritz Lang; Walter Gropius; David Bowie; Lou Reed; Einstuerzende Neubaten; Tangerine Dream; Peaches...

1 comment:

  1. Good to see an article which highlights the lack of English spoken in Berlin. People seem to assume that the city is crawling with fluent English speakers. There are many of them in the touristy parts of course, but among the general population you need German in order to communicate properly. Even highly-educated people from the former East Germany struggle big-time with English.